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Moral Enhancement and Self-Subversion Objections


Some say moral bioenhancements are urgent and necessary; others say they are misguided or simply will not work. I examine a class of arguments claiming that moral bioenhancements are problematic because they are self-subverting. On this view, trying to make oneself or others more moral, at least through certain means, can itself be immoral, or at least worse than the alternatives. The thought here is that moral enhancements might fail not for biological reasons, but for specifically morally self-referential reasons. I argue that moral bioenhancements, in a restricted set of cases, are self-subverting such that they are impermissible. Further, some moral bioenhancements would result in agents who are less admirable than they might have been through other means.

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  1. For related considerations, see Sparrow [13].

  2. The passage continues: “Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience . . . is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.”

  3. The basic cases from the next pages are based on Sorensen [18]. There I was concerned with a broad spectrum of attempts, including traditional environmental attempts, to raise one’s own moral admirability; here, I focus on genetic and technological moral enhancement.

  4. See also Temkin [22]. Possibly also relevant are these remarks from a William Faulkner character in his Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

  5. The quote and gloss is McMahan’s [23:371]. For other cross-temporal effects, or perhaps better, “narrative” effects, see Velleman [24].

  6. Some work in neuroscience calls into question this admittedly simple model. And many admirable moral decisions made by admirable moral agents seem to be not necessarily rich in deliberation. But the claim here is not so much about deliberation as structure: the agents for whom a genetic moral enhancement would succeed without self-subversion are agents who already have, however weak the desires themselves, a webbed array of proximate, intermediate, and deeper motives and intentions with moral content.

  7. For a lengthier account and defense of this view, see Sorensen [18:477–482]. See also Hurka [19].

  8. Though still not an ideal one, if some version of the Ambition Objection holds up, as I go on to claim. It is also worth asking whether such a radical moral transformation is coherent. If it is true that the best agents have a variety of proximate, intermediate, and background motives and intentions, all richly enough connected with enough moral content, what would it mean to suddenly have all of that where one did not have it before? Would one even be the same self? I take this up below briefly as well.

  9. I should note another version of the case that raises fewer worries. Suppose instead his desire to be a moral mensch falls far in the back of the chain of practical inferences; again, by definition, there is not much moral content in the beliefs and desires further down the chain, or else he would already be more than merely morally nondescript. The desire to be morally admirable is buried in the background of a wealth of other intermediate and immediate desires that have little to do with morality. Even if he is given a moral enhancement intervention, the resulting new motives will not be surrounded by sufficiently rich intermediate and immediate moral motives and desires. This person might be analogous to Peter Railton’s consequentialist friend, who, Railton thinks, can be a good friend with consequentialist motives way further back in his set of reasons and desires, because he has non-consequentialist immediate and particularistic love and regard for his friend (see Railton [27]). If so, there may be a smaller loss of moral admirability in this case: this person wanted to be a moral mensch, various non-moral motives and desires came about because of this ur-desire, and the person focused on these intermediate non-moral motives and desires, until he finds himself walking into the enhancement clinic. Maybe there are fewer moral self-subversion worries when intermediate and proximate non-moral motives have laundered anything untoward about the aim to be a moral mensch. Still, even if this laundering addresses the cross-temporal effect, and even if he has a richer intermediate set of motives and desires, the worry remains that the new moral motives and desires have no other rich moral motives and desires to connect to.

  10. See also Kagan [29].

  11. There is surprisingly little literature on achievement. An important treatment is in Hurka [30]. See also Hurka [19]. The notion of achievement is also treated briefly in Hurka’s recent book for a broader audience [31]. See also forthcoming work by Gwen Bradford.

  12. Change in belief also has certain rules to it, in order to count as epistemically creditable. Pathway and cross-temporal effects are relevant here too, one might think. See Duncan Pritchard’s work.

  13. For feedback on this paper I thank participants in the “Shaping Moral Psychology” conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, sponsored by the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. My thanks in particular to Tom Douglas for comments on an earlier draft, and to the two anonymous reviewers for this journal.


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Sorensen, K. Moral Enhancement and Self-Subversion Objections. Neuroethics 7, 275–286 (2014).

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  • Moral enhancement
  • Bioenhancement
  • Moral self-subversion